Duke Divinity School historian Grant Wacker’s new book on Billy Graham was the focus of this spring’s Cushwa Center Seminar in American Religion at the University of Notre Dame, which met this past Saturday. Although Wacker has been teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1977, I first remember hearing about him back in 2003, when he published Heaven Below, his landmark book on American Pentecostalism. With last year’s release of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, Wacker has again delved into an important part of the history of evangelicalism. The book has received attention, among other places, in the New York Times, in Christianity Today, and at Breakpoint, where a friend of mine, Benjamin Wetzel, has written a review. Along with Wacker, the Cushwa meeting hosted Richard Bushman, long time authority on American religious history, and Christian Smith, noted sociologist who has also focused his work on American evangelicals. Bushman and Smith offered critiques.
Amid the critiques, Wacker’s response, and audience discussion, several talking points rose to the surface. Wacker discussed at length his approach to writing this book, since it obviously deals with such a well-known figure and there is no shortage of Graham biographies. Wacker’s focus is not on Graham’s private or family life, but he paints a picture of Graham as a public figure – a revivalist from a farm family who rose to prominence … someone who transcended the careers of earlier revivalists such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Billy Sunday, to become a figure whose career intersected with major currents in American culture. Other biographies, such as William Martin’s A Prophet with Honor, just did not provide such an approach. Afterall, Graham’s public life both mirrored the ebb and flow of American evangelical culture as well as shaped it in important ways. “Telling Graham’s story,” Wacker said, “was much more about America, than it was about Graham’s story.” Here was an iconic figure who was able to “appropriated the trends of the age and put them to work for himself.”
In a room full of professional historians and Notre Dame graduate students, the discussion moved from Graham’s ability to avoid divisive issues such as the inerrancy debates, Graham’s overseas crusades, his preaching against Communism, the Cold War backdrop of his ministry, his support of racial integration, his relationship with presidents and public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., and the lessons he learned about partisan politics from Vietnam and Watergate. Both Bushman and Smith raised questions about the relationship between Graham’s evangelical America and today’s generation of evangelicals. Who has picked up Graham’s mantle? Perhaps Rick Warren, Smith proposed. Others looked to Tea Party evangelicals or even Oprah as candidates for the Graham mantel. The consensus, however, was that Graham had never reproduced himself – not even in his son, Franklin, whose more abrasive style, Wacker implied, was a product of Ruth Graham rather than his father Billy.
In summary, as Wacker stated in his introduction and reiterated on Saturday, he hoped to write this book in a way that would connect with a broader audience – not just historians and scholars. And it was clear that he had succeeded in stripping away much of the stuffy academic language and in so doing employed an engaging style that incorporated language that would be familiar to evangelical readers. Love Graham or hate him, readers will find a book that offers a sympathetic treatment of Graham by an author who clearly admires Graham and his ability to foster a nonpartisan spirit that has largely disappeared among conservative evangelicals in more recent times.
What’s next at Cushwa’s Seminar in American Religion? Jason C. Bivins’ Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (OUP, 2015) — October 31, 2015.